Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns, was born in Ayrshire into a struggling tenant farmer's family on January 25th, 1759, exactly 253 years ago. Burns does not lack biographers and it is not intended here to do anything more than offer a brief exploration of his connections with and experience of the city of Edinburgh.
Dogged by penury and personal difficulties throughout his early life, Robert's fortunes improved in 1786 with the publication In Kilmarnock of his book Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect which met with immediate success. Abandoning his plans to emigrate to Jamaica, a move that had clearly been forced on him by his financial difficulties and which he was glad to escape, Robert was encouraged by his friends to seek a publisher in Edinburgh, the Scottish literary capital, for a second edition. So fired was he by the prospect of further success that in his own words he immediately "...posted for that city, without a single acquaintance, or a single letter of introduction." ¹
Robert borrowed a pony and set off for Edinburgh on November 27th, 1786. His claim of knowing no one there was not quite accurate, for he took up shared lodgings in Baxter's Close on the south side of the Lawnmarket with a friend named John Richmond that he had known in Ayrshire. Baxter's Close was demolished many years ago but the approximate site of the house is the pub now called Deacon Brodie's Tavern at the junction of the Lawnmarket and Bank Street.
Edinburgh welcomed Robert with open arms. He found himself the immediate source of attention in a society that must have been quite different to anything the rustic farmer had ever known or aspired to. At that time Edinburgh was one of the greatest centres of learning and the arts in the world, the home of the Scottish Enlightenment. In material fabric it was badly overcrowded, venerable and unhealthy, but in its people and society it was celebrated across the globe. A feature of that society was the way people of different walks of life lived cheek by jowl in the tottering tenements and closes, making for an egalitarian atmosphere which Robert Burns must have fairly fallen in love with; many of his works reflect his strong belief in the essential equality of all individuals and his strong support for the cause of liberty.
Edinburgh proved a triumph for Robert. From the beginning he was welcomed into the literary and philosophical circles that met in clubs and in private houses, and his poetry together with his quiet, unassuming manner quickly made him the city's darling. One of his earliest champions was Edinburgh author Henry Mackenzie, author of The Man of Feeling, whose newspaper The Lounger famously referred to Robert as "this heaven-taught ploughman", thus establishing the myth that he was a ploughman rather than a farmer. It was Mackenzie too who arranged for the Edinburgh edition of Robert's Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect by his own publisher, William Creech, in March 1787. For the edition Creech commissioned a portrait of the poet by Edinburgh painter Alexander Nasmyth (reproduced above) from which an engraving was made to illustrate the frontispiece of the book.
Robert Burns had become a freemason in 1781 and some sixty years after his death the artist William Stewart Watson produced the above painting, which depicts Robert being inaugurated as Poet Laureate at an Edinburgh lodge. However it is almost certain that the honour was conferred on him posthumously, so the scene he depicts is entirely imaginary. It is certain however that the poet was the subject of many honours and invitations, joining at their invitation for example the gentrified field sports club Caledonian Hunt and the less exalted gentlemen's drinking club the Crochallan Fencibles, who conducted their 'meetings' in Anchor Close off the High Street. Several of those he met there became lifelong friends, including James Cunningham, 14th Earl of Glencairn, the music seller and song collector James Johnson with whom he shared an enthusiasm for the preservation of old Scottish ballads, and the metaphysician Dugald Stewart.
A famous meeting took place at the house of the philosopher and historian Adam Ferguson in the Sciennes district of Edinburgh, when Scotland's national poet met her greatest writer. Whilst admiring a print on the drawing-room wall, Robert Burns asked the assembled company if anyone knew who had penned the verse that was attached to the picture. Reluctantly, a quiet youth of fifteen years came forward with the answer, for which he was thanked civilly. That youth was Sir Walter Scott, who wrote with pride of the event many years later. The illustration below shows the painter Hardie's impression of the event.
It was not only the gentlemen of the city who were enamoured of Robert. It was at a tea-party in Edinburgh in December 1787 that he met Nancy M'Lehose, a married woman who had separated from her husband. Nancy had enjoyed a little education, rare enough among the ladies of the day even in Edinburgh, and she was able to converse with Robert on subjects he had never heard from a woman's lips. The two were extremely attracted to each other, and though it seems doubtful whether their love was ever consummated the two exchanged passionately romantic letters under the pseudonyms 'Sylvander' and 'Clarinda'. There is no doubt whatsoever about the nature of Robert's relationship with Nancy's domestic servant Jenny Clow, who bore him a son, Robert Burns Clow, in 1788.
His success in Edinburgh brought Robert another consequence, one that took him away from the city for good. The father of Jean Armour, the girl he had begged to marry years before to no avail, now considered him a suitable son-in-law and relented upon his opposition to the match. They were married in 1788 and the couple took up a long lease on Ellisland, a farm on the banks of the River Nith near Dumfries. In common with most 18th century Scottish farms, the soil at Ellisland was exhausted by intensive cultivation over many years, and neither crop growing nor dairy farming provided a living for them. Robert moved his family to Dumfries to work for the Excise Office. It was there that Robert Burns died at the age of 37 in 1796.
1. R. Chambers, A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen (1852)